Justice Carol Hunstein, Supreme Court of Georgia.
Justice Carol Hunstein, Supreme Court of Georgia. (John Disney/ ALM)

The Georgia Supreme Court upheld the firing of former Fulton County finance director and interim County Manager Patrick O’Connor, who was sacked in 2015 after he was recorded criticizing county leaders and refused to resign.

O’Connor was the county’s chief financial officer and finance director from 1996 until late 2014, when he was appointed interim county manager. The County Commission appointed former AT&T executive Richard Anderson to the post in February 2015 and offered O’Connor an opportunity to resign as finance director or be fired. He chose the latter.

Later that year, O’Connor sued the county and Anderson for breach of contract, seeking reappointment to the position of finance director plus attorney fees. According to the suit he filed in Fulton County Superior Court, O’Connor was fired after a recording of his comments at a community meeting surfaced in which he expressed “frustration with the [Board of Commissioners]‘ lack of leadership and the county’s lack of resources.”

O’Connor’s suit argued that county personnel regulations constituted an employment contract, but in 2016 Judge Thomas Campbell dismissed the suit on summary judgment. Campbell ruled the regulations did not constitute a contract and that, in any case, as an “at will” employee they did not apply to O’Connor.

Writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, Justice Carol Hunstein agreed.

Both sides agreed, she wrote, that the key to the case is whether personnel regulations amount to an employment contract and, if so, whether they covered O’Connor.

O’Connor argued that the relevant county regulation stipulated an employee promoted to a higher classification position in an interim capacity had a right to return to his old position and salary, once the interim appointment expired, Hunstein wrote.

O’Connor argued that the regulation “constitutes an additional or future compensation policy that amounts to an enforceable contract,” said Hunstein. “We disagree.”

O’Connor’s position was the rule provided a contractual right to return to his old job, the opinion said, but “any concern regarding future compensation is dependent upon and collateral to his central argument of being returned to his former position.”

“Simply put,” it said, the regulation “controls the administration of certain temporary appointments and does not amount to a promise of future compensation; accordingly, the provision does not form the basis of an employment contract.”

In any event, Hunstein continued, O’Connor’s employment status as a “set-range” employee whose salary was mandated by the county commission or manager rather than an “on-range” employee whose pay was governed by the county pay scale meant the rule did not cover him anyway.

“Apparently recognizing that the language of the regulation is unambiguous, O’Connor asserts that a plain reading of the regulation leads to an absurd result,” the opinion said. “This argument, however, is unavailing because O’Connor has failed to detail how the plain language reading is absurd or unworkable; further, the mere fact that the plain language of the regulation is unfavorable to O’Connor does not in and of itself render it absurd or untenable.”

“We’re obviously very disappointed with the ruling,” said O’Connor’s attorney, Parks Chesin & Walbert partner Matthew Maguire, via email.

“We appreciate the court’s decision and the time that they took on this matter,” said County Attorney Patrise Perkins-Hooker, whose team included Jerolyn Ferrari, Kaye Burwell, Paula Miller and Dominique Martinez.